Book review of ‘Watling Street – travels through Britain and it’s ever present past’ by John Higgs published by W&N Books

I’m very grateful to Weidenfeld & Nicolson Books (part of Orion Publishing Ltd) for providing a pre-publication copy of Watling Street for review. The book will be published on 13th July 2017 and ahead of the release on 12th July ‘an evening with John Higgs’ is taking place at Brighton Waterstones starting at 7.30pm and John is also speaking at lots of other events over the summer.

It might seem a departure to include a book review amongst the more typical albums and software you find on my blog. John’s book on the KLF was the first one of his that I read and it’s superb. It’s been a source of creativity and inspiration for me, often in subtle ways, for instance the Algo Incantations album is an indirect result of reading that book. So it seems appropriate to publish a review of one of his books.

Incidentally, I’d highly recommend any of John’s previous releases. Brandy of The Dammed and First Church on the Moon are excellent short stories, in fact the latter is one of the few I’ve read that made me laugh out loud. Our Pet the Queen is an interesting and thought provoking take on the role of the Monarchy and Stranger Than We can Imagine is an alternative history of the 20th Century.

Synchronicity is often a factor when you read a John Higgs novel. There were several such moments whilst reading this book, subjects I’ve often thought about but haven’t found a suitable explanation for, usually by myself as no one else seems to notice or thinks you’re a bit odd for doing so. I’m glad I’m not the only person that notices these sorts of things.

I really like John Higgs writing style and Watling Street is no exception. He writes intelligently and rationally – often about controversial, difficult to grasp or leftfield subjects – in a concise and engaging way that cleverly weaves and intertwines a number of different subjects into the narrative without you really noticing. This means that he plants a lot of seeds which germinate and grow and give you lots of food for thought not just whilst reading but also shortly afterwards when you’ve put the book down. And for quite some time in the future when these sort of thoughts just pop back into your mind.

Watling Street is a story about travelling along this particular road to discover the history of Britain and discover more about its identity. As with John’s other books it does this very well but ultimately achieves so much more. It is an all encompassing consideration of where we’ve come from and how this has shaped our current world. At times funny, poignant and gruesome there are common themes of the blurring between history and myth, how history is often used for specific purposes rather than reflecting reality, especially considering some of the tragedies and injustices of the past.

The book opens with “A Milton Keynes Solstice”, an intriguing and captivating introduction where a number of themes and aspects of history are introduced which sets the scene for the rest of the book. It also makes a very good case for the road reflecting British History acknowledging that certain parts of the country are not visited and after reading the book I’d definitely agree.

Fourteen chapters follow starting with a discussion of national identity which is clear, rational and extremely accurate. The chapter cleverly builds this discussion and ends on crisps, which are a very British phenomenon.

There’s a fairly sombre mood about storms on the morning of the EU referendum and the poor state of the British press followed by a very brief history of the makeup and formation of language in the UK which really highlights the generally high levels of ignorance and contradictions around national identity. This is followed by a discussion of The Canterbury Tales and how we’re all a continuation of this story and the importance of using language wisely.

Next is a really engaging and thought provoking chapter about the role and differences between politics, spirituality and religion highlighted by poignant and contrasting examples.

This is followed by another engaging chapter which covers a wide range of seeming disparate but linked topics including Dickens, Rod Hull and Carry on Films along with Steve Moore and where reality meets fantasy.

There’s a fascinating account of the Winchester Geese. It’s brilliantly written to convey that past tragedy and injustices exist in hidden places and are part of our history but rather than just apologise, meaningful actions have a much more positive impact. It’s also interesting that the Celtic calendar is discussed in this chapter, this consolidates the feeling that history is very selective. Both of these subjects are very different and have largely been forgotten or ignored over time. There are many benefits to the Celtic Calendar which are lost in modern times. Similarly the injustices are forgotten but still exist and prevail in modern society albeit in a different guise. So the message is not to forget or apologise for the past but rather positive action can have meaningful impact.

One such moment of synchronicity occurs in this chapter with the discussion about the position of East. I have noticed a 45 degrees shift towards South in winter and a 45 degrees shift towards North in summer from the ‘normal’ position of East. I have tried to discuss this with several people who thought I was insane. Glad I’m not the only one to have noticed.

The next chapter discusses how things have a value based on location and time covering Banksy artwork in Brighton to the location of executions at Tyburn in London. This is excellently conveyed in the discussion of London Stone. The discussion about why Londoners aren’t that different to anyone else is succinctly explained. The history surrounding the gallows is really quite gruesome and leads to a number of common phrases in use today that I’m sure many people aren’t aware of.

The next chapter talks about patron saints, dragons, flags and Saint Albans. I don’t want to discuss the content too much because it will give the story away. There is a huge dose of magical thinking in here.

An example of selective history, the next chapter starts with a discourse on Highwaymen and women and how the fiction belies the reality that they were really horrible people. The chapter also highlights how folk heroes are melded to meet a particular narrative to suit the establishment and their version of history – a recurring theme.

Next is an excellent discussion about Bletchley Park told from a historical and current perspective of a family day out. There’s also discussion of ‘alternative history’ and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. This is definitely one of those chapters that you will return to and think about some time after putting the book down.

The next chapter is brilliant, describing a meeting with Alan Moore and Alistair Frith discussing Alan’s exceptional and inspiring career as well as the visit to the centre of England.

The theme of selective acceptance of history and importance / role of individuals has been discussed several times so far, the next chapter talks about false memories and then goes on to discuss the Atherstone ball game and the invention of rugby just up the road. It’s another one of those subjects that I know will pop back onto my head at some point in the future for me to think about again.

Next is a discussion about battles leading into a thought provoking discussion about land ownership and the need for reform. I must admit I’ve always been puzzled how you can own land when we don’t have the same claims to the sky and sea, this chapter explains the historical context which makes things fall into place.

The penultimate chapter contains a discussion about the futility of borders, the blending between myth and history and the history of the British. There are some recurring themes from previous chapters and some excellent points made.

The final chapter is the end of the road. It’s a very fitting end to the story, tying together the different themes of the book into an acknowledgment of past, present and future which fits very neatly into the conversation John had with Alan Moore. I really like the way that although he is at the opposite end of the road, the story ends exactly how it starts.

John Higgs on twitter
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